Dragonflies are a bit of an oxymoron. While everyone is able to instantly recognize a dragonfly, very few people know the names of the various dragonfly species, never mind being able to tell them apart and identify them. I am no different. We had just finished a trail ride in Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area and had taken a break for a snack at the Waskahegan Staging Area when a couple a dragonflies landed on a sunny patch on the ground right next to us. My camera was out of reach and I did not want to spook the dragonflies so I decided to try to use my phone to take some pictures. I took a few pictures from some distance away and then I slowly moved to phone closer and closer thinking that they will for sure take off. But they stayed. I managed to get about a foot away from this one dragonfly (the phone was not able to focus at a closer distance) and managed to take this close up. At the time I had no idea what it was, other than a dragonfly. After a bit of research it appears that it most likely is a species of Meadowhawk, specifically a Cherry-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum internum), but there are a few other species of Meadowhawk that look very similar. The name “Meadowhawk” is quite telling of the ecology of this species. It is found near marshy ponds, lakes, slow streams and on meadows. Like all dragonflies, the Meadowhawk is a predator. I can just picture it patrolling the meadow like a hawk for any soft-bodies flying insects such as mosquitoes, flies, moths and mayflies.
Going birding mid-day is not ideal. Most birds are out of sight, but if you put your mind to it you might be able to hear them skulking in the shrubbery. For a birding noob like me the only thing more frustrating than no birds is hearing birds and being unable to see them and identify them. Plants have none of these problems. Be it dawn, mid-day or dusk – the plants are there. So on this late afternoon down by the Whitemud Creek I did not see much in terms of birds but I did encounter this patch of White Cockles. Like many of the pretty flowers I have encountered, this one is also an invasive species. White Cockles are commonly found in pastures, roadsides, waste areas, gardens and occasionally in cultivated fields. The White Cockle, also known as White Campion (Lychnis alba syn. Silene alba S. latifolia) was introduced from Eurasia and rumor has it that it was introduced with ship ballast.
Black-capped Chickadees may be one of our smallest birds but they are definitely one of the most resourceful and intelligent birds in these neck of the woods. There have learned to take full advantage of our weakness for cuteness and manipulated our feeble human minds to provide them with free snacks year round. Although I do not bring snacks, plenty of other people do. There are always piles of sun flower seed strewn about along the trail and on the bridge railings along Whitemud Creek. They swoop down, grab a sunflower seed and then fly off to a nearby shrub where they get to work on the seed. It’s basically like a fly-through fast food joint. Chickadees are also known for hoarding food for leaner times. Although chickadees undeniably have small brains, they are no bird brains. They are very capable of remembering where they hide food stashes when they need to find them in the middle of the winter.
Different species of spiders create different types of spider webs. The spider web type that probably come to your mind first is the classical spiral orb web design. This type of web is created by spiders in the Araneidae family, aka as orb-weaving spiders. With 3122 species these are the most commonly found spiders across the world. Many orb-weaving spiders build a new web each day. They tend to hide during the day and become active during the evening hours when they consume the old web before spinning a new web in the same general location. As a result the webs of orb-weaving spiders are generally clean and free of accumulated debris. This spider web that I came across on an early morning down by the Whitemud Creek was covered in morning dew. Tiny water droplets were strung up on the silk fibres like bright pearls strung on a sting. The ability of spider webs to collect water is unique and difficult to understand. For example, human hair cannot do this. As it turns out a recent study showed that the water collection ability of spider silk is an artefact of the microscopic structure of the silk. As far as we know the ability for spiders silk to collect water does not seem to serve any biological purpose. On the contrary, when the spider silk is wetted it reduces its ability to capture prey, an obviously bad thing from the spider’s perspective. One cannot deny, however, that morning dew captured on a spider web is a very photogenic effect that we humans probably enjoy more than the spider itself.
Along the trail at the Whitemud Creek one can find Low-bush (Viburnum opulus) and High-bush Cranberries (Viburnum edule). Calling these shrubs cranberries is misleading as they are more closely related to elderberries than to the true cranberry. They produce a stone fruit called a drupe (a drupe is fleshy fruit with a central stone like core containing one or more seeds), like a cherry, whose acidic flavour resembles that of the cranberries. The fruit have a tangy musky odour and not a favourite food of birds. During the winter, when other sources of food are scarce, the berries often become survival food for birds such as waxwings and robins. Both the Low-bush and High-bush Cranberry shrubs are native to North America and can be found in thickets along shorelines and creeks, swamps and forest edges. Both species appear identical, except one of the grows low (up to 2 m) and the other species grows high (up tp 4 m). It is left to the reader to deduce which one is which.
All of a sudden last week foam started to appear in the Whitemud Creek. Large floating rafters of yellowish foam floating down the creek and getting stuck in the vegetation along the shorelines. Most people’s first reaction is probably that the foam is due to pollution. While pollution can certainly cause foam in fresh and salt water it turns that foam also can be created through natural processes. These so called foam lines are often found on streams and river surfaces when water is strongly mixed with air, for example at water falls where rocky substrate have fast currents passing over its. Foam lines are common in streams with brown water which contain high levels of dissolved organic carbon from decomposing algae and other plant matter. Much of the foam is formed after snowmelt and after prolonged heavy rains. The Whitemud Creek fulfills all these criteria, we have had large amounts of rain this summer, the water level is high, the current is strong in the creek and the water is murky brown. Things always change at the creek, from it being frozen in the winter, ice floes and water-ice slurry in the spring, high water levels during the spring melt and during the rainy summer to low and clear waters during the end of the spring and before the rainy season.
One reason many of the inhabitants at the Whitemud Creek are so comfortable around humans might be the regular treats they receive from us. On any given day it is common to find sunflowers seeds strewn along the trail, placed on stumps, logs and bridge railings. I am a bit ambivalent about this practice. One one hand, it allows adults and children to easily view the squirrels, voles, chickadees, nuthatches and other inhabitants, which clearly serves an educational purpose. On the other hand, sometimes when wildlife associates humans with food bad things happens. I can see this being a valid concerns when feeding (on purpose on inadvertently) large animals such as coyotes, bears and elk, but squirrels and small birds? What harm can a chickadee possibly do? In all fairness, if you will be feeding wildlife, sunflowers seeds are probably the most nutritious foodstuff you could offer them. I am sure there are additional aspects one could discuss, e.g. how does feeding affect survival, breeding success, population dynamics and interactions between animals. Apparently you can be fined if you are found feeding the wildlife at Whitemud Creek. There are stories of the RCMP and park rangers handing out tickets to sunflower-carrying offenders. This fella, however, looked quite grateful for a sunflower seed snack and was not about to issue a ticket.
A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender said “We don’t serve your kind here”. The mushroom replied: “Why not? I am a fun guy.” Once you wipe the cringy grin off your face we can move on. We have received a lot of rain this summer (daily and nightly) and as a result of this three things have happened, (1) everything has been growing like crazy and many of the smaller trails down at the creek are overgrown and inaccessible, (2) the mosquitoes population has exploded and one is surrounded by a cloud of thirsty females every time one ventures into the forest and (3) the forest is full of fungi fruiting bodies aka mushrooms. Although I tried to identify this mushroom I came up empty handed. It’s a mushroom, nuff said.
Red-back Voles are common inhabitants of the northern forests. Just as the name suggests the fur on their back is reddish brown. There are two species of red-back voles in Canada, the Northern Red-back vole (Myodes rutilis) and the Southern Red-back vole (Myodes gapperi). Studies have shown that the Northern Red-back Vole occurs north of latitude 60°N and the Southern Red-back Vole south of 60°N with virtually no overlap between the two species in North America. Edmonton is located at 53°N and the 60 parallel North constitutes the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. This means that most likely this is a Southern Red-backed Vole. This fella did not seem to be particularly shy. It just continued to munch on its snack while I was taking pictures only a few meters away.
Well, I don’t actually know if the beavers are back…, I do know, however, that at least one beaver is back at the Whitemud Creek. The last time I encountered beavers at the creek was over three months ago back in mid-April (See Post No. 020). At that time there were beavers galore in the creek and then they just vanished. There is obviously much more to this story, but I’ll save that for a different day. What matters is that it appears that a beaver has somehow found its way back to the creek. A few days ago I caught a fleeting glimpse of one individual doing the rounds in the creek. I just barely managed to snap a picture of it. It is a good thing I did, otherwise I probably would have been second guessing myself, questioning myself if I really had seen what I thought I had seen or if my eye or brain were just playing tricks on me. I am intrigued about where this beaver came from. Did it swim in from the North Saskatchewan River or did it come down from an upstream location of the creek? My suspicion is that it came in from the North Saskatchewan River, but I have no idea how to prove that. I have to admit that while it was super exciting to spot a beaver at the creek again, it did not come entirely as a surprise. A few days earlier I saw the writing on the wall in the form of a freshly felled poplar bearing the unmistakable signs of a beavers handywork.